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"My Brooklyn" documentary tackles Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, gentrification; week of screenings begins tonight

There's much going on in the valuable, if flawed, documentary My Brooklyn, rather aggressively capsuled as "Unmasking the takeover of America's hippest city."

It will screen for a week beginning tonight at reRun Theater in DUMBO, with a special guest each night (tickets).

"My Brooklyn" includes an investigation of the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, a broad look at the history of and changes at the Fulton Mall, an uneasy personal meditation by director Kelly Anderson on gentrification, and a discomfiting portrait of some class if not race divides in Brooklyn.

One lesson of the film, as with Atlantic Yards, is that land use decisions do not merely reflect the market but are steered by policy and money. (The AY doc Battle for Brooklyn is even more powerful in this matter.) In this case, the mayor's office worked with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, led by key landowners, to craft the rezoning plan.

The trailer


My Brooklyn trailer from Kelly Anderson on Vimeo.

The rezoning

After all, as the Brian Lehrer Show segment yesterday reminded us, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, endorsing the 2004 rezoning, declared confidently, "When completed, it will make Brooklyn a rival to Los Angeles for office space."

Nothing of the sort happened; there's been no market for office space. Instead, as Anderson stated, there have been 6,300 units of luxury housing, with real estate tax abatements. 

In most cases, there's been no accompanying subsidized housing as a tradeoff for the vastly increased value of the land. The wealthier demographic means that not only are national chains moving in to a mall previously dominated by urban wear and hip-hop gear, the smaller stores--like those marketing African-American books--get squeezed out.

As producer Allison Lirish Dean stated, "many of the buildings... would've been OK had there been more equity... It's more about who gets included, and who gets to be there."

The next mayor, she added, "needs to work off the existing strengths of communities" rather than, as the Bloomberg administration has done, "reduce planning to zoning."

Also see a HuffPost essay by Dean and this Q&A with Anderson:
The city encourages luxury residential development through subsidies to developers that are unnecessary in a hot real estate market like Downtown Brooklyn's. Residential subsidies totalled more than $200 million in 2011 alone, and they will continue for 10-25 years! This is money that could be distributed in ways that could benefit a wide cross-section of Brooklynites instead of just giving the most affluent residents a gigantic break on their real estate taxes.
The divide

Dean worked on a March 2005 Pratt Center for Community Development study of the Fulton Mall, which described a social divide between those who shop at the mall and those who live nearby:
This divide appears to be based as much on economic class as on race, as we frequently heard non-users criticize the merchandise at the Mall, saying it was “cheap” or “ghetto.”  Interestingly, young African-Americans also used the term “ghetto” to describe the merchandise, but when probed they explained that they meant this as a compliment.
The Pratt study  recommended improvements in the mall appearance, a mix of uses in the old buildings, an improved public realm for visitors, an effort to "promote and enhance the current retail themes," and to engage a broad and diverse group of stakeholders.

Not all of that happened. Why does it matter that poorer black residents feel a loss? Because as historian Craig Wilder explains in the film, public policy has long disadvantaged black Brooklynites.

Also see the July 2007 report, Downtown Brooklyn’s Detour: The Unanticipated Impacts of Rezoning and Development on Residents and Businesses, prepared by the Pratt Center for FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality). FUREE worked with Anderson and Dean on the film.

The Brooklyn Paper review, while praising the film, suggests it "feels sentimental toward an era when landlords torched their buildings and Myrtle Avenue was called 'Murder Avenue.'" (Here are reviews from the Village Voice, Slant, the Daily News, the Times, and Variety.)

I think the film could have been a bit broader, mentioning, for example, how the very popular Brooklyn Tabernacle Church moved into a movie theater that closed after a shooting, and changed some of the dynamic along the mall.

But the issues remain ever relevant. Do you know who's offering cheap financing for the new City Point complex at the site of the old Albee Square Mall, itself the site of an old movie theater? EB-5 immigrant investors getting green cards in exchange for purportedly job-creating investments.

The backdrop

Behind all this is demographic change. The New York Times reported last May:
Brooklyn, which accounted for 49,000 of the city’s 100,000 loss in black residents, experienced its own version of suburbanization as blacks moved from the borough’s densely populated center to the fringes in Canarsie and East New York.
Blacks were replaced by younger non-Hispanic whites — in the Bedford portion of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the white share of the population soared, from 4 percent to 26 percent — and to a lesser extent by Hispanic and Asian New Yorkers along a corridor flanking the L subway line. Brooklyn gained white, Hispanic and Asian residents.
The Daily News reported:
A surge in the number of black residents has made East New York one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Brooklyn, even as the black population across the borough and citywide fell dramatically.
The black population increased by 13% in East New York from 2000 to 2010, according to a new analysis of census data by the Department of City Planning - absorbing many residents who were priced out of other neighborhoods as the borough’s black population fell by 6%.
Moving out of neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, some black residents left the city altogether, decamping for the suburbs or the South - but many of those who stayed in the borough ended up in East New York.
And how about this, from the Daily News last May: I scream, you scream: Prospect Heights’ pricey ice cream battle: Waits up to 30 minutes for $4.49 ice cream cone attracting nabe newcomers:
A pricey foodie ice cream wave has hit Prospect Heights with competing shops taking advantage of the once-gritty neighborhood’s rapid transformation into Brooklyn’s latest family utopia.
Hot weather crowds are packing into the stores where customers can wait up to 30 minutes for scoops of the highbrow organic and handmade treats that cost as much as $4.49 for a small single cone.
The confection craze is a reflection of the area’s change: Prospect Heights’ population of whites under the age of 18 doubled from 2000 to 2010, while the number of young blacks shrank by half, U.S. Census data shows.

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